Journalist Peter Neils is back in Taiwan on another assignment, this time with a young photographer, Josh Pickett, to write about a Buddhist temple. When they have a couple of days to themselves, Neils suggests a visit to Taiwan's most famous national park, Taroko Gorge.
On a school bus of Japanese middle-school students, girls are gossiping about boys, boys are flirting with girls, and almost all are wondering how they got stuck going to Taroko Gorge for their school trip--Hawaii would have been so much more fun.
By the end of day, three girls are missing, and the American men may have been the last to see them. Before the Taiwanese detective has finished the preliminary questioning, the students, teacher, park manager, and journalists have each come up with his or her own theory. Distrust, accusations, fear, and ultimately the truth have life-altering effects on all those involved in the incident.
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari explores so much more than the disappearance of three fifteen-year-old girls. The story is told from at least four viewpoints: Peter Neils, experienced American journalist; Michiko Kamakiri, insecure Japanese schoolgirl; Tohru Maruyama, responsible (male) Japanese class representative; and Hsien Chao, Taiwanese detective. Each perspective is colored by the personal history of the character and by private truths that perhaps shouldn't be shared.
As we piece together the lives of a handful of diverse individuals who were involved in the events of a few hours in a national park, we are forced to consider several larger issues, including fate, religion, and multicultural contact. Can we control our own fate or do seemingly harmless lies, misunderstandings, and thoughtless comments have power over others? Once Detective Chao comes on the scene, suspicions are quickly formed and expressed. Later, we wonder if the accusers are responsible for how the innocent react.
Ritari examines fate in terms of both interpersonal interactions and religious and spiritual experience. Although Neils claims he stopped believing in God when he was fourteen, he acts as a hub or bridge connecting the Buddhist monks he meets, his Catholic missionary brother, and Pickett's druggie American version of Buddhism. Among the students, Michiko plays a similar role as she tries on various spiritual capes and struggles with understanding a classmate's immersion in Mahikari, a "new religion."
Two other themes found in Taroko Gorge are intergenerational issues and how culture and history affect the way the Japanese, Taiwanese, and Americans respond to each other and to the emergency of the missing schoolgirls. The novel can be read on a number of different levels, and it is difficult to resist the temptation to immediately restart the book after finishing the last page.
Although we learn a truth about the incident, Ritari leaves us on our own to ponder the future of the main characters.
I felt something. But what it was, I didn't care to think about. Every day thousands of prayers were poured inside, for the living and dead, recovery from illness, recovery of lost things, patience, wisdom, courage. Millions of prayers if you counted everyone across the world. And where did they go? They must go somewhere. Nothing in this world really disappears. (p. 239)
Published by Unbridled Books, July 2010
Challenges: New Author, eBook, Global, 2010, 100+
Source: Review (see review policy)
I read Taroko Gorge as part of the Spotlight Series, developed to "help . . . spread the word on quality books published by small press publishers." For more information and to join future spotlight projects, visit the series's blog.